After inclement weather hit parts of the state last week, photographer Suzi Altman is in a race to save what’s left of Margaret’s Grocery, an iconic folk art environment on old Route 61 in Vicksburg.

As the primary custodian of the site, Altman raises funds to protect the remaining artwork inside the building after high winds caused further damage to the building’s roof. The funds will also be used to help buy the land where the old country store is located, she said.

The Mississippi Folk Art Foundation, the organization Altman created in 2013 to preserve the site, is under contract to purchase the land where the store is located at Cool Springs MB Church, she said. Owning the land will make it easier to apply for grants and other sources of funding to make capital improvements, she added.

“We’re trying to protect the front end of the deli. We’re really at a critical time right now to raise funds to deconstruct the interior and salvage what’s left,” she said.

In its heyday, the store was covered in hand-painted signs and cinder block towers painted pink, yellow, and red. It was an evolving art project and a love letter from the artist, Reverend Herman D. “Preacher” Dennis to his wife, store owner Margaret Rogers. And like a magnet, the couple and their store drew visitors from across the map to this corner of Mississippi.

Margaret Rogers and her husband, Reverend Herman 'Preacher' Dennis, stand inside a section of Margaret's Grocery adorned with trinkets, clippings and photos of the couple.  COPYRIGHT SUZI ALTMAN

Since their deaths, Altman has taken care of what remains of the once vibrant site. She recalls the day nearly 20 years ago when she first met Preacher outside the colorful castle wearing Mardi Gras beads and paint-splattered seersucker pants. He told her how he had made a promise to his wife Margaret in the late 1970s that if she married him he would turn the store into a castle for their shared love and devotion to God.

“He said it would be a way for people all over the world to come and see all the colors God has used. His message was always, ‘He don’t have a black church, he don’t have a black church. white, it has a church and all are welcome,” Altman said.

It’s a message she said that continues to be relevant. She remained close to the couple and in a final promise to Preacher before her death in 2012, she said she would save his castle. Nearly a decade later, she continues to fight to preserve their legacy.

The exterior of what remains of Margaret's Grocery exterior shows one of the towers built from worn cinder blocks.  COPYRIGHT SUZI ALTMAN
A recent photo was taken from the ceiling inside the store, which showed trinkets and strands of Mardi Gras beads.  Reverend Herman "Preacher" Dennis was prolific and began working on the changing artistic environment in the early 1980s. COPYRIGHT SUZI ALTMAN

But time and weather have not been kind to their castle. Thanks to the Mississippi Folk Art Foundation, she was able to preserve approximately 85% of the artwork and signage in temperature-controlled storage. Items kept include bibles, street signs, trinkets made from colorful collectibles that Preacher fashioned together.

Altman owns all of the intellectual property and artwork salvaged from Margaret’s Grocery, including the storefront and a similarly decorated school bus where Preacher gave his sermons.

Continued:Preserving Hidden Folk Art Spaces in the Rural South

His recent interior photos are further proof of the prolificacy of a Preacher artist. Parts of the walls and ceiling are lined with trinkets, Mardi Gras beads, necklaces, and other salvaged objects he composed into intricate patterns.

A recent photo was taken from the ceiling inside the store, which showed trinkets and strands of Mardi Gras beads.  Reverend Herman "Preacher" Dennis was prolific and began working on the changing artistic environment in the early 1980s. COPYRIGHT SUZI ALTMAN

Altman remembers dozens of strands of Christmas lights crossing parts of the store. If you were lucky, she said, Preacher would hook them up for you.

“When you walked in, the front of the grocery store had a row of Bibles. Articles featuring them were pasted on the walls along with their photos. There wasn’t an inch of the place that wasn’t decorated or ornate in some shape or fashion,” she said.

The building could be unsalvageable at this point, she said. But she is considering different options for the remaining artwork and possessions. There is the option of repainting the cinder blocks to match the hot pink, red and yellow hues of years gone by. The signage could be put back up, repainted and the property turned into a park, she said. She hopes to work with museums so she can showcase the school bus and the artwork in traveling exhibits.

“Being a steward of this site has allowed me to think outside the box. This type of roadside attraction is a lost art, mostly done by artists later in life. It’s a wonderful form of expression,” she said.

For more information on Margaret’s Grocery, click here.

Maria Clark is a generalist reporter for The American South. Ideas for articles, advice, questions? Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @MariaPClark1. Sign up for the American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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